In Search of an Authentic Indian: Notes on the Self

Joseph M. Pierce, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and Assistant Professor of Latin American Literature at Stony Brook University. He questioned his identity growing up, and now has some answers.

In Search of an Authentic Indian: Notes on the Self

I started writing this in the aftermath of the Rachel Dolezal affair and have continued to write as theAndrea Smith story has taken off. But it’s not about them. The various ways in which race and passing,cultural appropriation and calculation have been discussed has inspired this text. But it’s more like a personal essay and a confession.

I have been at various points in my life White, Latino, and Native American. That is, I have claimed—with varying degrees of certainty, archival support, and agency—three different forms of ethnocultural belonging. (I know what you’re thinking. Just wait.) This is not to say that one day I imagined I was Latino and started calling myself that for the hell of it, or that I proposed to dupe an institution into accepting me as something I knew I was not.

Rather, the way in which my racial ambiguity has played out over the course of my life has been highly informed by context, by language, by desire, by the way I imagined (myself) and was imagined (by others). The question of ambiguity is crucial in all of this because it speaks to a longer history of how racialized subjects are interpellated by the textures of ethnic identification.

The thing that sticks in my mind from the recent coverage of Dolezal and Smith is the way in which deception lingers unresolved as the sign of racial violence. It signifies intent and malice. But what might oppose this deception, the hypocrisy that imbues these two stories? What might an authentic approach to racial ambiguity look like?

My father was adopted. That is the beginning of my racial ambiguity. He was adopted in San Antonio, Texas, by a White family, who took him to East Texas, where he was raised and typically introduced as their “adopted son” in a close-knit, Leave it to Beaver-esque milieu.

My father’s skin tone, somewhere between warm brown and caramel (the Spanish trigueño comes to mind), his formerly jet black—and for many years salt and pepper—hair, his high cheek bones, all pointed to a non-White (or at least not entirely White) ethnic origin. And he was adopted in San Antonio, a city with a majority Latino population. So… Latino? My father was probably Latino?

But we didn’t have any real documentation to back this up. Nor did his adoptive parents say very much about the process. Perhaps they preferred not to talk or even imagine their son as a racialized subject; perhaps my father preferred the same. (Transracial was not yet a thing.) Perhaps he preferred just to exist, to belong to the cultural and affective community in which he was raised. That is, after all, what he knew, that was where he felt comfortable. The comfort of that silence is important. That silence that means not having to subject yourself to the violence of being something other than White. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism.

I am the biological son of this father, whose dark features were never really made explicit, but certainly pointed toward “ethnic,” and a mother who comes from a more typical Western European background. My maternal grandfather’s surname points to French ancestry; my maternal grandmother’s maiden name points to English heritage. My mother is clearly identifiable as White.

I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, where the population is almost evenly divided between White and Latino—mostly Mexican-American or Chicano/a of various patterns of migration and generational history. Some families have been there for centuries, while others are recent arrivals.

So culturally, it bears repeating, I grew up in an ostensibly White middle-class family. My parents have decent jobs. I went to a small liberal arts college with partial scholarships. I was able to study abroad. I eventually went to graduate school and am now a professor. I left college with no student loan debt. My parents were extremely supportive. That is a lot of privilege. I must admit that for this story to make any sense.

What I want to revisit here are the moments when I was misidentified as part of that family. I remember the strangeness. I remember the desire to be the thing that other people thought I was. I remember the desire to embody that which I imagined I was. But I didn’t know. I didn’t have a term for what my body meant.

I remember being in the grocery store and the checker asking if I was my mother’s “stepson.” Stepson? Why would he say that? “No, this is my son,” she replied. His discomfort. The way his neck flinched. What is the meaning of that gesture of recoil? What sort of expectation was I failing to live up to?

Being at the beach as a child and sitting next to my blond-haired, blue-eyed brother, and the double takes, the inquisitive, almost condescending, “who is this little guy?” The way my skin turned darker while his burned.

Playing soccer growing up: “you’re not bad so you must be ‘Latin.’” (More recently I went to play soccer in Brooklyn with a group of mostly Anglophone Caribbean men who started calling me “Spanish man” rather than actually asking my name.)

A boyfriend who once admitted that his first thought when he saw me was that I was “Mayan.” A jealous ex of a different boyfriend who asked mockingly, scornfully, “Well are you Mexican or are you Indian?” and laughed.

My least favorite line of questioning, “Where are you from?” “No, where are your parents from?” “No, what is your nationality (read ethnicity)?” “No, what are you?” What are you? What kind of question is that? What story do I tell? My father was adopted, and I know I’m brownish, but my brother has fairer skin than I, and my mom is White, but I take after my father, and we don’t really know…

But not knowing is not the same as fabricating. Not the same as consuming or appropriating or re-colonizing. Not the same as deceiving.

Joseph M. Pierce Joseph M. Pierce didn't look like his brother growing up.

Eventually we decided to go through the process of opening the sealed records for my father’s adoption case. This was, not coincidentally, around the same moment when I was coming to grips with my own sexuality. My ethnic and erotic ambiguities were not far apart.

We completed all the paper work, jumped through all the hoops. What did I hope to find out? What were these records going to show that memory and experience could not? What ambiguity would this resolve?

They came one day in a large manila envelope, official looking, but not entirely hefty. Indian. The records list the race of my father’s mother as Indian and his father as White.

So, what does this mean? What are you?

At this point I was already in graduate school in a master’s program in Latin American studies. I spoke Spanish fluently. I had at times identified as Latino to other people, depending on the time I had to explain my ambiguity, my desire to be forthcoming with them, the context, the crowd. There were times when I knew I was being identified, racialized as such, and I just didn’t care enough to explain what I thought was an important and nuanced ethnic history. Maybe was exhausting. Sometimes you’re at a bar and you’re talking to someone you know you will never see again, and you just don’t have the time or the energy to go into all that. I know. I know. That is privilege, too. It’s a lot of privilege. And it’s a lot of privilege because it is not allowed the other way around.

But then we found out that my father’s mother was still alive. That she still lived in Oklahoma. And we called her.

A few months later we were sitting in the lobby of a La Quinta Inn in Amarillo, Texas, and she walked in with one of her daughters, my aunt, my father’s half-sister. My grandmother was small, I remember thinking. Soft-spoken. She had a round gray perm. She had beautiful almond eyes. We had a different nose.

We talked for about an hour about the weather, what had come of my father, about what she had done in her life. We talked about my academic successes and my brother’s professional advancement. We just talked. It was a first step.

Allow me to recap: My father was born in the early 50s. His mother was Cherokee and his father was White, we found this out in the mid 2000s. She had been born on the Cherokee Nation and grew up speaking Cherokee, though she later attended the schools where she was forced to speak English. She told us matter-of-factly that she could only remember a few words at this point. We never reconnected with my White grandfather, though we knew that he had died years earlier. I think that says something also. My father was the product of something like a one-night stand when she was still a teenager but already working at a diner in the Oklahoma panhandle. He was in the military, she said.

What are you? I thought this information would make it easier to explain myself to other people. I thought that if I could say “I’m Latino” or “I’m Indian” it would make it easier. But it didn’t. It hasn’t. The story is just longer, more “complicated.”

We wanted to continue the relationship with my grandmother and to meet the rest of her family, so we made a trip to visit them in Oklahoma. It was a family reunion in the most sincere sense of that term. My parents, my brother, and I all went. And I remember feeling strange, like we were being grafted back on to their family tree. There is a scar there.

Family. We talked about this with them. I met a cousin who speaks more Cherokee than the rest of the Oklahoma family. She wanted to learn and so she did. It reminded me of learning Spanish when I was young. We had barbeque and drank iced tea. My grandmother told more stories about her youth. I craved those stories.

We still keep in touch with the Oklahoma relatives, in spite of my grandmother’s passing two years ago.

But while we were in Oklahoma we also went through the process of becoming citizens of the Cherokee Nation. First with the help of an amateur genealogist cousin (from my father’s adoptive family), and later confirming with my grandmother, who did have tribal citizenship, we were able to trace our descent to the “final rolls of the Five Civilized Tribes,” of 1907. Another archival process.

We went to Tahlequah. I remember the garish gold letters on the Cherokee Capitol Building. I remember picking up my “White Card” declaring I have a ¼ blood quantum certified by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I remember the young man at the registration office commenting that that was more than 98 percent of enrolled Cherokees. I don’t know if that is true. Maybe it was hyperbole. Maybe it was meant to invite me to feel more Indian.

Joseph M. Pierce discovered his Cherokee roots.

But what does that mean? What “cultural connection” do I have to this tribe? What claim can I ethically make to this past, to this family, to their stories? What right do I have to say that I am Indian, even though, now, legally (legally?) I am?

I have not actually lived the experience of systemic racism, though I have certainly been racially abused for not being White enough.

But then again, maybe I have. Were it not for the social and economic exclusion that my grandmother experienced, her forced monolingualism, her forced acculturation, were it not for the stigma attached to a mixed-raced child like my father, then maybe I would not exist. It is very likely that I would not exist. Were it not for the accumulated weight of racism and the gross neglect of Indian communities in the U.S., I highly doubt that I would be here to write these words.

The thing is that my body has a history that began long before me. My present—all of our presents—is imbued with the past, even if we do not know that past. The past doesn’t simply dissolve because we don’t know it. But what do we do in the face of this historicity? What do we do when we want to know what we are, but we do not have the ability to say?

Many of these histories exist beyond the horizon of the archive. And this is “complicated.” Archiving blood has been—and continues to be—a very “complicated” thing to do. Indeed, blood quantums have served entirely sinister purposes over the course of world history, and they continue to serve to exclude and racialize and stigmatize. Tribal citizenship is not exempt from coloniality.

It seems ironic, though, that precisely what I lacked—the archival legitimacy of my racial history, what provoked my own ambiguity, indeed my own “passing”—is also what has served to vilify Dolezal and Smith.

To be sure, they made choices. They attempted to write themselves back into a history that was never theirs. That is violent. That is hypocritical. That is disingenuous and inauthentic.

In the end, I am writing this to attempt to be authentic to my experience of self in the face of this unknowing but also this new knowledge.

It seems to me that to deny this legacy, this heritage, however distant and bureaucratic it has been, is to participate in the erasure of the Indian populations of the Americas. It is to continue to silence that history. It is inauthentic.

My choice is not to do that.

So I do say now that I am Indian. But I say those words with humility. I say those words knowing that they are part of a circuitous path toward Indigeneity. I say those words knowing that I do not speak Cherokee, knowing that I do not know so much about what it means to be Cherokee.

But I also say those words knowing that not having access to our oral history is an authentic Indian experience. Knowing that not being able to care for your son, giving him up for adoption, was authentic for both my grandmother and my father. Wanting to be more than an archival Indian is authentic to my own life experience.

I try to tell that more complicated story. Perhaps, in the end, this essay is my way of signaling the need to be honest with these complications. Because neither personal history, nor archival evidence, nor desire completely suffice. Because the ambiguity of race is not enough to justify the willful deception that dominates the narratives of Dolezal and Smith.

I do not have the ability to belong to the Cherokee Nation in the same way as someone who grew up on the reservation. I do, however, have the ability to tell this story. In fact, this story is the most authentic thing I have to honor the trajectory of my own racial history. And it is in this spirit, in this unlikely sense of self, that I continue to imagine a more historically grounded sense of belonging to a community that was never meant to be mine, but which I approach slowly, openly. Authentically.

Joseph M. Pierce, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Assistant Professor of Latin American Literature at Stony Brook University (SUNY) and Communications Director of La Poderosa Media Project.

This piece originally appeared at JosephMPierce.com on July 2, 2015 and has been republished here with permission.

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